When you grow up as an Italian in Ontario, or perhaps the child of any fist-gen ethnic group in Canada, you get a lot of weird things hanging around you that anglofied “normies” don’t. The multicultural experience hits home in little trinkets here and there, finding stale candies with Arabic and Cantonese labels on them, going to my Grandparent’s house and hearing a mix of Hindi and Polish on the outdoor garden radio because the switcher broke in the early 90s, etc. that or Nonno forgot to change the station after the Italian or Spanish hour of programming was over.
Perhaps this was just me, but a lot of the time I spent as a kid was pretty much exploring the woods and abandoned houses with my Father, tourist trinket shops on Clifton hill, train stations my Nonno took me to to train-spot, Family picnics at the park, etc. A lot of time was simply spent alone, I never really hung out with friends outside of school, apart from a few once in awhile. Hence the curse of being an only child, you are often alone, but are molded by it, and the trade off is you can focus on growth in various ways when being accustomed to the company of adults at an earlier age. I often spend time alone or with my Father’s friends and workers, I always felt more at home around older people. However, the alone is something that is incredibly difficult to be comfortable in; great works and life-pursuits can be cultivated from being accustomed to long stretches of loneliness and solitude, for it is the primary condition of almost every artist and thinker, or any creative life-passion. Even a scientist before the age of hyper-compartmentalization needed to slip into a mode of prolonged solitude, like meditation, to cultivate that stillness of the mind. When you enter this mode of being in solitude, it is like a clear as glass pond, not even the faintest ripple disturbs the equilibrium of the surface.
But back to the main thrust of this little communique….I spent a large amount of time around the Niagara region’s locations, some abandoned a time ago, some forgotten, others filled with crowds but only that which produces a profound distance within nearness of others (like tourist traps). These are the sources of Nostalgia in my Millennial nostalgia-poisoned mind, and a lot of them are fading away quickly, or newer faces make up the character of those places. It is often the place of a memory or Proustian “virtual time” which sticks with you more than people. I came across this clip of Clifton Hill at its peak in 1999 and it almost brought a tear to my eye. Visiting the Hill in 99 that summer was almost magical, new years that year was something else (think to that last scene in the film “Strange Days”). Now you see videos of empty tourist spots, desolate streets, closed up shops.
It is from this source of abandonment in North America’s squalid and crumbling post-industrial heartlands that I contend the artist must find direct inspiration. To gaze upon the wreckage of history, but a wreckage that is immediately around you, and hold the soot in you hands with sombre reverence; The extreme localism of the artist within the space of the work of art is something that is not just lacking, but even derided as parochial, or even “implicitly reactionary” in the globalist art world. Of course, POC artists from around the world can express their locality and unique experiences within the work of art, but this aesthetic localism is ultimately reduced to a token, or is selected and curated as to only conform to western moralistic and ideological standards. ID-POL ultimately colonizes and reduces the local down to a flattened state of art in service of rigid ideological categories, and so the POC artist helps this process of colonization and globalization of culture (which is really Americanization, or New York-ification by any other name).
But again I find myself trailing off into politics. In North America this aesthetic localism becomes difficult, or rather, in Canada it is more difficult still. Everyone knows what “Americana” is, and everyone can sense the regionalism of each American territory has its own unique flavor and color. Canada has always struggled with this question of identity, and given the vastness of the Canadian wilderness, the landscape artist found solace in this dangerous, but exciting untouched land. This is why there is such an attachment to the land itself, rather than the landmarks of a thing such as “Canadiana” as opposed to the landmarks of Americana.
This is what I am attempting to get at in my work, with explicating it here in the written word, and in the works of art themselves. The Locality of a place influences the artist in the profoundest and deepest of ways. The internationalization, the “wordlessness” of contemporary art has in many ways sapped art of its vitality. For it is not the “worldless” reality of the spiritual, but the worldlessness of modernity Arendt talks about. art that is vacant of the local and of the grounded/rooted, appealing to cosmopolitan sensibilities only. The artist must confront their immediate environment, for good or for bad. And this is why i believe it is of the utmost necessity to do so, even if one grows up in a post-industrial North American wasteland, endless bedroom communities and abandoned industrial parks. But in these locations one finds a serene beauty, even within the vacancy and loss of what once was.
This is what constitutes a supreme paradox of the landscape in art. The landscape appeals to almost everyone on some level, and appears universal in scope. It can be placed in every gallery and home, and will fit any context throughout the history of art. Faces in the portrait wed portraiture to a particular time, a people and region, or rather, it becomes more apparent in portraiture. But the landscape is a universal art genre that hides its rootedness within. The landscape therefore is always-already a slippery entity, neither postmodern nor modern. Despite its universal appeal and reach, it retains this unique character like nothing else. Every little nook and cranny of the landscape painting is filled with a locality, a time and place. Even the imaginative or re-arranged landscape denotes a referent to something beyond the mind of the artist. It is also within it that representation was the first to bleed into abstraction, for the patterns of nature were exploded, or hyper-focused into (like Franz Klein’s projector images, vs. Frankenthaler’s washes of vast landmarks) creating this sense of a luminous air, and areal perspective imbued with light.
But to tie this in to personal experience. A foundational activity when I was young, being an only child and kind of a lonely one at that, was my Father taking me to various abandoned buildings and industrial parks. He would sometimes get contracts to seal them up and fill in various holes left by shipped-off industrial equipment (to China), so after work he would take me and show me around the place. We found all sorts of things with friends, even various abandoned buildings adjacent to forested areas just ripe to explore. In hindsight this was partially dangerous considering I could have fell into pits with chemicals in them in some places (my Mother never found out of course until later!), but I appreciate my Father giving me a bit more of a rugged upbringing than what others i grew up with were used to.
This gave me a deep sense of locality from an early age. I would often find myself questioning why i stood in certain spots, and if I were to see them again. I even feel a deep longing when certain places I ventured into as a kid around the Niagara region are gone. like the video 2000 store my Aunt and I would rent movies from, or the old junk tool shop my Grandfather would frequent for odds and ends that had a massive table in the middle filled to the brim with random hardware store oddities you had to dig through (its now a comic books store, the horror).
The point being is that a viable aesthetics of existence for the artist must be in part to find what is teeming with significance around them. There is this documentary about a “perambulator” in London, a person who walks and finds significance in the smallest of things around them, from abandoned buildings, local history, etc. As i have argued before, Urbex (urban exploration) is a viable art form for our era obsessed with both nostalgia and collapse, for its weds these two neurotic impulses together. What once was and what would be simply is, the aesthetic act of walking through the throw-away ruins so many invest their lives in. I believe i strongly identify with such an aesthetic having grown up in a post-industrial area, perhaps not as poverty-stricken (but it will get there) as others, one that is essentially a giant heaping region of bedroom/retirement communities and little else besides the one tourist trap. I get the movie channels and well not a very big TV watcher, I am fascinated by small budget Can-cinema indie films, often from the National Film Board (which I mentioned in another Lamentation piece). Ones that depict precariat life at the bottom, always small towns adjacent to the borders of nature, and wasting away industrial parks, almost symbolically so. Films without a clear progression of plot, but rather the big long now of exploring life in theses places that hyper-modernity left behind.
Awhile ago I promised myself to always work on a life long mission, to depict the wasted and abandoned places around me, like Hopper in the 21st century, whatever that will be. But the artist or anyone that possesses an avid aesthetic eye, the “inner eye of vision” as Morris Graves called it, can appreciate the sombre beauty of such realities in the post-industrial North American and European landscape. To find a calmness and stillness in such places around you, to explore their depths in even the smallest of details as told by those around you, this is the beauty of locality that must be cultivated.
thumbnail studies for a larger piece on Merritton, St. Catharines. 2014.